The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues
SEPT 2023 Issue
Art Books

Francis Picabia: Catalogue Raisonné Volume IV

Candace Clements, Arnauld Pierre, and William A. Camfield
Francis Picabia: Catalogue Raisonné Volume IV (1940–1953)
(Mercatorfonds, 2022)

In 1970 the Guggenheim Museum hung Francis Picabia, an exhibition billed as the first US Museum retrospective of the work of the Parisian-born painter, who was born in 1879. Despite curator William A. Camfield’s intentions to include examples from all of Picabia’s multifaceted periods, the exhibition was, in fact, only nominally retrospective. His attempt to include Picabia’s controversial and, at the time, largely unseen paintings from World War II was denied, leaving a gap from 1939 to 1945 in the checklist. With the recent publication of the fourth and final volume of the Francis Picabia Catalogue Raisonné—a life’s work, of which he is a co-author—Camfield achieves his goal of making the WWII series known. Authored by Camfield, Candace Clements, and Arnauld Pierre, with a preface by Beverley Calté, the four-volume catalogue raisonné includes 2,125 works spanning a range of media, predominantly painting and drawing. Catalogue raisonnés can be dry publications, but the Picabia catalogue, by dint of the ideological battles it wages, is a polemical page turner—fitting for Picabia’s parasitic life and work, which is available to the public like never before.

In view of the totality, it becomes clear that Picabia harbored a bitterness, a reflexive refusal, to the traditional conventions of painting, all while never abandoning the medium entirely. His inclination for nontraditional materials, his disavowal of the conventional procedures of painting, include his early adoption of enamel paint, plastic, and wooden matchsticks, and his long-lasting preference for wood or board instead of canvas. Such are the grand dichotomies of Picabia’s career: a life-long painter who despised painting, an anti-academic artist who would fit the bill of postmodernism.

These dichotomies are nowhere more present than in the fourth volume’s 518 works from 1940 to 1953, the publication of which finally allows the public to come to terms with his controversial output during the Nazi Occupation of France. The “display” of the works in the catalogue is admittedly wanting, for most are thumbnail color reproductions. (But the promise of a digital version of the catalogue should solve that issue.) The illustrations are accompanied, when known, by their source imagery. It reveals for the first time the full extent of Picabia’s wartime commitment to making figurative works, whose imagery he culled from photographs of models and actors in magazines such as Paris Magazine and the soft-core porn Paris Sex-Appeal (decidedly not Fascist outlets). The paintings are mostly of attractive nude white women rendered in oil on cardboard, often hellishly varnished.

Picabia, who was living throughout France’s southern “Zone Libre” during the war, exhibited and sold these paintings—the proceeds of which, for the first time in Picabia’s life, were a necessary source of income. But by the time of the Liberation in 1944 and his return to Paris in 1945, which was prolonged by an investigation by the French authorities into his possible collaboration with German Nazi intelligence, Picabia was already onto another style, which would be his last: completely abstract and non-objective. The purpose of a 1946 solo exhibition in Paris, per Clements’s biographical essay, “was to reintroduce the artist to Parisian viewers while largely ignoring his years away.” Postliberation, Picabia condemned the figurative Occupation paintings to oblivion. The artist had solo exhibitions in 1949 in Paris and in 1950 in New York. Both exhibitions excluded his figurative wartime paintings. This elision suggests the possibility of a concerning link between Picabia’s artistic output during the Occupation and his questionable political behavior, further evidencing why they were omitted again in the posthumous 1970 Guggenheim exhibition.

In 1976, the Grand Palais in Paris mounted the first true Picabia retrospective. Ethical considerations regarding Picabia’s activities and antisemitic statements during the Occupation were abundant, as well as aesthetic concerns about the similarities in style and content of his wartime portraits with official Fascist imagery. Did Picabia paint a portrait of Hitler? Although this has been suggested, the catalogue raisonné does not include such a portrait, nor has it been confirmed to have ever existed.

It is obvious that the question of these paintings’ value—ethical (bad as evil), and aesthetic (bad as ugly)—remains suspect. For the 2016 MoMA retrospective, there was a need to re-address the ethical and political dimensions of Picabia’s Occupation activities and artistic production. Seeking evidence-based clarification, scholar Rachel Silveri provided an account of Picabia’s chronology postliberation: on “October 5 [1944], the French Sécurité militaire charged Picabia as a ‘collaborator, and for gold trafficking’; five days later he is charged as well for ‘being in relation with the German Intelligence Services.’ He is arrested and placed under police guard in the hospital. [...] By February 15, 1945, Picabia ‘has been released from the hospital as well as police custody’, but the circumstances remain unclear.”

Astonishingly, the equivalent entry in the catalogue raisonné’s “Selective chronology,” simply reads: “Fall [1944]–Winter [1945]: Picabia is hospitalized in Cannes following a stroke, where he is investigated by French military security on charges including collaborating with the enemy. […] December 25: [Picabia] is discharged from the hospital and with no legal charges pending at the end of January [1945].” In the last analysis, Picabia was imprisoned for four months; in the new analysis, Picabia was hardly imprisoned at all. In his catalogue raisonné essay defending the Occupation paintings, Arnauld Pierre charges Umland with identifying Picabia’s Occupation series with Nazi kitsch, making the comparison “all but official” in the 2016 MoMA retrospective.

With the entirety of Picabia’s Occupation portraits before us, we can make better sense of the debate. Are these paintings, which the artist himself suppressed, parodic, neo-Dada, and proto-Pop? Or are they reactionary, sympathetically fascist, and in bad taste, perhaps in line with some of the artist’s antisemitic comments? This publication allows for readers to form their own conclusions, but mine follows that failure is at the heart of the Occupation series. Art historian Aurelie Verdier, who was a contributor to the second volume but whose voice is sorely missed in the fourth, has posited that at the heart of Picabia’s practice is a dialectic defined by the condition of the failure of painting. That Picabia effectively condemned the paintings after the Liberation is perhaps more meaningful than the actual works themselves.


Parker Field

Parker Field is a Brooklyn-based art historian and writer, currently the Managing Director of the Arshile Gorky Foundation.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues